We thought the best place to start is with the basic anatomy of your spine and nervous system. We’ll be moving on to the impact of this complex and elegant system on your overall health and wellbeing, but first things first.
Your spine is made up of 24 separate bones (vertebrae), stacked one above the other and in all except one case separated by discs. These 24 bones are divided into 3 broad regions. The vertebrae of the neck are known as the Cervical spine, those of the chest region (which connect to ribs) make up the Thoracic spine, and below them the vertebrae of the low back make up the Lumbar spine.
The very top vertebra, C1, articulates directly with the base of your skull and the vertebra at the base of your spine, L5, connects via a disc to the central bone of the pelvis (known as the sacrum).
your brain and spinal cord
Your spine provides the structural framework to support your body, and with the addition of your skull and sacrum, also provides protection for your brain and spinal cord. While your brain sits enclosed in your skull, your spinal cord travels in a canal created by rings of bone which extend back from the main weight-bearing portion of each vertebra.
Your brain and spinal cord are continuous and make up what is referred to as the Central Nervous System.
At every level of your spine (between each vertebra) there are openings through which spinal nerves leave the spine (31 pairs in total), branch into a myriad of peripheral nerves and travel to every muscle, organ and cell in your body. These transmit information from your central nervous system to control all of the functions of your body, and collect incoming information from your body to adjust this function in response to changes in your internal and external environment. This portion of your nervous system is known collectively as the Peripheral Nervous System.
your nerve cells and muscles
In total, estimates put the overall number of nerve cells in the body at around 100 billion with 84 billion of these in the brain, and your brain is estimated to process around 400 billion bits of information every second. Of course, most of this information processing takes place below the level of your awareness.
One fascinating fact about the anatomy of your spine is that at every level it has very small muscles known as ‘intrinsic’ muscles attached to adjoining verebrae. These muscles are now known to have an incredibly rich supply of sensory receptors, and as they stretch and contract in response to even the slightest bodily movements and changes in posture, this sensory information stimulates regions of your brain which regulate the function of other brain centres. This extraordinary self-enclosed system is designed to use movement, primarily of your spine, as stimulation (or ‘fuel’) for your brain in order to keep it (and you) functioning optimally.
what happens when we assess you?
When we assess your spine, one of the things we look for is how well the individual vertebrae move in relation to each other.We often describe the ideal as being every vertebra moving separately and individually, ‘a bit like keys on a piano’.
As stress accumulates over time, this movement becomes reduced, often spanning several vertebrae. It may also include more than one area of your spine (more on this in future posts). What is important to consider is that this affects more than just the function of your spine (which itself causes degenerative changes over time or a range of symptoms such as back or neck pain and headaches).
Because of the relationship between your spine and the function of your brain and nervous system, this accumulation of stress can cause your brain and body to become ‘locked in’ to functioning as if the causative stress is still occurring, which plays a significant role in your health and experience of life.
We’ll go into the relationship between stress and function more in coming posts.